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Summiting The Second Tallest Mountain In The Lower 48

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If you are visiting Colorado, most likely your plans call for some time spent in and around the mountains. For the more adventurous, you might include a hike to the summit of a fourteener, which is a mountain that reaches 14,000′ or higher. Colorado boasts over fifty fourteeners scattered across the state. These mountains are a huge draw for those of us who love a challenge. Reaching a summit with panoramic views at the top is one of the best rewards. Summiting the second tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mount Elbert is a huge victory!

Reaching the summit of the tallest mountain in Colorado is a huge victory.
Reaching the summit of the tallest mountain in Colorado is a huge victory.

Climbing A Fourteener

Fourteeners range in difficulty from the easiest, or Class 1 to the most difficult or technical Class 5. Though a hike might be a Class 1, that doesn’t mean it still isn’t dangerous. Anytime you climb at elevation you should be prepared to acclimate before your hike. Staying hydrated, taking plenty of breaks and fuel appropriately are other ways to be successful. Make sure to do your plan according to the season you are hiking and the mountain you are climbing. During the summer it’s important to be below the treeline (about 11,000′) before afternoon thunderstorms. Mount Elbert is considered a Class 1 mountain even though it is the second tallest mountain in the lower 48.

Panoramic views from the summit of Mount Elbert.
Panoramic views from the summit of Mount Elbert.

Mount Elbert, Second Tallest Mountain In The Lower 48

There are four trailheads to chose from, two of which are considered a Class 1. The Northeast Ridge trail is probably the most popular and the trail we chose to tackle. It’s closeness to where we stayed in Leadville and the reports of amazing views were important determining factors. After the exhilarating climb, you will have gained around 4,700′ in elevation. At the top, celebrate your achievement for tackling the tallest mountain in Colorado, Mount Elbert at 14,433′.

Looking down on the Twin Lakes makes for great photo opportunities on top of Mount Elbert.
Looking down towards the Twin Lakes on a fall day makes for some great photo opportunities on top of Mount Elbert.

When To Summit The Second Tallest Mountain In The Lower 48

Since Mount Elbert is a relatively easy hike with beautiful views, it can be fairly busy on the weekends. Make sure you arrive early enough to snag a parking spot at the trailhead. We began our hike just before 6:00 AM on a weekend day in September. We got a great parking spot and did not run into any large crowds. I can imagine that during the summer you would need to arrive much earlier! Since we began before sunrise, we were glad we brought along headlamps as well as a couple of extra layers.

Trails are clearly marked and easy to follow on Mount Elbert.
Trails are clearly marked and easy to follow on Mount Elbert.

The Climb Up Mount Elbert

The entire roundtrip hike is around 9.5 miles which took us approximately nine hours. We spent a fair amount of time enjoying beer, food, and coffee at the summit. Factor in some time for celebratory drinks and photos at the top. The first couple miles are a gradual incline aside from a few steep ascents. There was only one split in the trail with clear signage as to which way to continue. For the most part, the trail was easy to distinguish as it was well worn.

The treeline along the tallest mountain in Colorado.
The tree line along the tallest mountain in Colorado.

Above The Treeline Of The Second Tallest Mountain In The Lower 48

After you reach the treeline you’ll be exposed to the elements. You’ll begin to climb more aggressively with plenty of switchbacks along the loose rocky trail. I recommend plenty of sunscreen and even a hat to protect you from the sun. As we climbed, we began to remove layers since the day was warming up nicely. Even with the sun out, we continued to pull out our jackets again for every break we took. Make sure to pack plenty of water as well! I brought along two 32 oz bottles and it was enough for hydrating as well as a hot drink at the top.

One of the many false summits of Mount Elbert.
One of the many false summits of Mount Elbert.

False Summits of Mount Elbert

As you research the climb, you’ll see most people talk about the multiple false summits of this mountain. They aren’t wrong, but they weren’t as bad as most people mentioned. Keep your eye on the peak you can see and just keep climbing while enjoying the views. You’ll know when you reach the top because that’s where everyone is!

You'll know you've reached the top because that's where the party is!
You’ll know you have reached the top because that’s where the party is!

The Perfect Summit Of The Tallest Mountain In Colorado

I may be biased, but I’d have to say that with the vibrant colors and the perfect temperatures that mid-September is the perfect time to do this hike. I would have loved to have seen some snow on the peaks, but being able to relax at the summit without being too chilly was a morning I’ll never forget.

The perfect crew to summit the second tallest mountain in the lower 48 with!
The perfect crew to summit the second tallest mountain in the lower 48 with!

Where To Stay When Summiting The Second Tallest Mountain In The Lower 48

Check out my other post Stay In This Smalltown In Colorado During Your Mountain Climbing Adventure for where to stay before you climb Mount Elbert! 

My name is Bridget and I’m so happy you stopped by. I’m an average girl with a full-time job who has been traveling on and off for almost 10 years. I want to inspire you to get outdoors and travel by sharing some of my favorite adventures as well as tips, tricks, and itineraries. Everything from traveling across the world to my current location in central Florida, you can find it all here at impulse4adventure!

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